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Interesting Mandarin – English coincidences


English and Mandarin have very little vocabulary in common. Mandarin has borrowed a few words from English (‘sofa’, ‘coffee’), but these are very rare.

There is a bit more mixing between Cantonese and English, perhaps because Guangdong was historically the region Britain interacted with most often (and because of Britain taking over Hong Kong).

Below is a small compilation of surprising matches between the two languages, most of which are purely coincidental.

Common pairings

secretary / 秘书

Both the English and Mandarin words for ‘secretary’ begin with the respective words for ‘secret’ (秘 (mì) in Mandarin). I imagine this is explained by discretion being an important feature of the role that is common to both cultures.

bow, bow / 弓, 躬

In English, the verb ‘to bow’ and the noun ‘bow’ (which you shoot arrows with) are written the same but pronounced differently. In Mandarin, they are both pronounced ‘gōng’, and the verb ‘to bow’ contains the character for the thing you shoot arrows with – 弓. I think this is probably because bowing involves bending your body like a bow, so it’s not a coincidence that both languages associate the two things.

swallow, swallow / 燕, 嚥

This one really is weird, and I’m almost completely sure it’s a coincidence. In English, ‘swallow’ can be a kind of bird, or the action of swallowing something. In Mandarin these two words also share the same pronunciation (‘yan’), and in the traditional form the characters are distinguished only by a mouth radical (口). Shared pronunciation and writing in both languages. Bizarre.

Similar sounds

These ones are less interesting to me; they’re just words that coincidentally have similar meanings and sounds in English and Mandarin.

by / 被 (bèi)

The passive marker ‘by’ in English sounds very similar to the Mandarin pronunciation of the character 被 (bèi), which is also used as a passive marker. The words also fulfil the same sentence position in each language (before the agent).

fee / 费 (fèi)

The character 费 also contains 弗, which looks a bit like $, which is related to ‘fee’ in English.

typhoon / 台风 (táifēng)

It’s possible that this might have very long-lost roots in Chinese, but I don’t find the idea convincing. Ancient Greek has ‘tȳphôn’, which is clearly more similar and has a more plausible route into English. It can’t really be argued that the Greeks got the word from Chinese, as at the time the pronunciation of 台风 would probably have been different from the modern Mandarin.

canteen / 餐厅 (cāntīng)

There is also some debate about this being a loanword from English, but I’m inclined to think it’s a coincidence. The meaning of the Chinese characters seems far too much like an original word – ‘food hall’. Most loanwords from English end up being nonsensical in Chinese, unless they’re the name of the business where someone has been paid to think of a clever translation that sounds the same.

totem / 图腾 (túténg)

Amazingly, some people think this is a loanword. Again, the meaning seems too neat in Chinese, and at the time when the word ‘totem’ could have been interchanged, 图腾 would not have had a similar pronunciation. Most likely a coincidence.

cords / 裤子 (kùzi)

OK, getting a little bit weak here. 裤子 means ‘trousers’, and sounds a bit like ‘cords’, a kind of trousers.

And a few more similar sounds:

rely / 依賴 (yīlài)

ear / 耳 (ěr)

man / 男 (nán)

tower / 塔 (tǎ)

chew / 咀 (jǔ)

Around the interwebz:

Do you know of any other interesting coincidences with Mandarin? There are a lot more if you start looking at languages other than English. Do you have any explanations for the coincidences listed here? Please share them in the comments.


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  • James Wilson

    Interesting article, thanks for posting it. One question: did 咖啡 and 沙發 really come from English instead of French, Portuguese, Spanish, or even Turkish? I ask because China had contact with many Europeans, and the words for “coffee” and “sofa” are quite similar in many of them. I looked on some Chinese etymology web sites but they seem more oriented towards the derivation of the characters rather than which language the word originally came from.

    James

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      That’s very true, I hadn’t thought of that. It’s entirely possible that they’re borrowed from other IE languages. ‘Café’ in French seems a much better candidate for 咖啡 than ‘coffee’.

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  • http://chinesequest.wordpress.com/ ChineseQuest

    Typhoon was not likely borrowed from Greek, but rather the Chinese word 大風, which in Middle Chinese was probably something like dhɑ̀i biung. Most Chinese languages will pronounce it something sounding like tai fung, and English is more likely to have borrowed from a Chinese language other than Mandarin.

    As far as totem, 圖騰 is, I believe, a relatively recent loan from English. The concept, however, is not. There was a totemic society in China 5000 years ago, and you can see Chinese totems outside the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. Hardly a surprising connection, since the Native American people most likely originally migrated from Asia.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      “Origin:
      1580–90; < dialectal Chinese, akin to Chinese dàfēng great wind, altered by association with Greek tȳphôn violent wind ”

      Well there you go.